Outfielders Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco have made an impact for Pitssburgh. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
After ending 20 years of below-.500 futility and making a playoff appearance in 2013, it appeared the Pirates were a team on the rise. A poor April put the Bucs in a bit of a hole, one they’ve slowly tried to dig out of. This year, pitching has been subpar while the bats have only recently started to wake up. It’s too early to draw conclusions as there’s plenty of baseball still to be played, but the loss of A.J. Burnett from the rotation and some rough starts from key offensive contributors have led to serious struggles. Still, don’t count Pittsburgh out yet, as it does have some talented youngsters and an exciting roster.
(12TH IN NL, 4.3 RA/G)
The Pirates’ top two starters, Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole, started off relatively strong, but oblique and shoulder fatigue issues, respectively, currently leave both on the DL. Cole has a below-average strikeout rate, but the former top draft pick is just scratching the surface of his immense talent. Their absence puts the burden squarely on the shoulders of veteran and Friday’s starter Charlie Morton as well as young right-handers Vance Worley and Brandon Cumpton. In 14 starts this season, Morton’s had a fine season, posting a 3.09 ERA in 87.1 innings. Saturday’s starter Worley has only pitched seven major league innings this year, but has a 1.20 ERA in two career starts against the Cubs, though Sunday’s starter Cumpton has struggled in 2014. The bullpen continues to be a strength, even with closer Jason Grilli experiencing some bumps.
(6TH IN NL, 4.1 RS/G)
Early on, defending NL MVP Andrew McCutchen has continued to look every bit the franchise-making superstar—but he was the only one providing any offense. Starling Marte regressed from his great 2013 season, and while Pedro Alvarez is again hitting for power, his low batting average and OBP drive down his value. Neil Walker was having a fine season until he had to undergo an appendectomy. There’s no timetable on his return. The Pirates have already made some significant moves to help kick-start the struggling bats, acquiring first baseman Ike Davis from the Mets and bringing up top prospect Gregory Polanco, who’s had success at the dish in a very small sample size. The hope is that Marte turns things around, Alvarez starts making more contact, and Polanco can make a big impact on the major league front.
Giancarlo Stanton is leading the NL with 17 homers and 53 RBI. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty)
After dropping 100 games last season, the upstart Marlins pull into Wrigley Field 32-28 and in a surprising tie for first place with the Braves in the NL East. The Fish have one of the most exciting young players in the game in behemoth Giancarlo Stanton. He’s a can’t-miss batting practice attraction who delivers unmatched power, and he’s putting up MVP-like numbers in the early going. But the Marlins aren’t just the Stanton show. The team has come out swinging in 2014, scoring more runs than any other offense this side of the Rockies. Pair that with a group of young pitchers with plenty of upside, and the Marlins aren’t far off from making a run at relevance. The good news for the Cubs is the Fish have proven to be a much better team at home than they are on the road.
(11TH IN NL, 4.2 RA/G)
The Marlins took a big hit early this season when they lost Cuban sensation Jose Fernandez for the year following Tommy John Surgery. His passion and performance made every one of his starts must-see baseball. They immediately moved to sign veteran Randy Wolf (1-1, 3.38 ERA), who the Cubs will face on Saturday. He also has a pair of teammates who aren’t too shabby. Nathan Eovaldi (4-2, 3.24 ERA), who the Cubs will face Friday, is one of the hardest throwers in the game and is getting results to match the stuff. Sunday’s starter, Henderson Alvarez (3-3, 2.62 ERA) relies more on command than velocity, but his excellent ERA puts him right up there with any strikeout artist. The fifth starter and the bullpen, outside of closer Steve Cishek, are where the Marlins’ troubles lie. They’ll need more out of their pitching if they want to remain competitive all season long.
(2ND IN NL, 4.6 RS/G)
The Marlins began the season hitting the cover off the ball, especially at Marlins Park. Stanton is the leader on offense, and he’s proving to be one of the game’s best players when healthy. He comes into the series hitting .314/.407/.614 (AVG/OBP/SLG) and is leading the NL with 17 homers and 53 RBI. But he is hardly alone. The Marlins’ big free-agent addition, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, has been solid early on, though his numbers have dropped in the last month. Veteran Casey McGehee has also looked good (.298/.355/.382), but it remains to be seen if he can keep it up for the entire season. Joining Stanton in the outfield are Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich, both very young (23 and 22, respectively) and delivering with the bat. If the youth can continue to perform, the Marlins’ offense could turn out to be one of the biggest surprises in baseball.
Bartolo Colon has brought some veteran leadership to a young Mets rotation. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
The Mets pulled into June just a few games off the pace in a relatively weak NL East. While their impressive start was a surprise to many, the front office did add a pair of seasoned veterans in Bartolo Colon and Curtis Granderson to try and jump-start the team’s window of contention. Pair that with face of the franchise David Wright and some talented young pitchers in Dillon Gee, Jon Niese, Zach Wheeler and Matt Harvey (out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery), and New York has an interesting core to work with going forward. While it appears the Mets have performed better than their numbers might suggest, there are some signs their early-season success could be maintained if a few veterans start performing up to their career norms.
(8TH IN NL, 4.0 RA/G)
The Mets’ starting pitching, which pairs youth with ageless veteran Colon, has been a strength. Colon walks very few batters, and his strikeout rate is actually up this season, but he’s giving up more home runs than usual. If he can get that number back to normal levels, the 42-year-old could be part of a very strong rotation that includes solid young arms in Gee, Niese and Wheeler. Gee has recently been on the DL with a strained right lat, but former Red Sox bust Daisuke Matsuzaka has actually been solid in the rotation. If someone falters, stud prospect Noah Syndergaard is waiting in the wings. The bullpen, on the other hand, is a big question mark. Last year’s closer Bobby Parnell lasted only one inning in 2014 before tearing his UCL. The Mets are hoping a mix of veterans and untried youth can get them through the later innings of close games, with Jenrry Mejia serving as the team’s closer of late.
(6TH IN NL, 4.1 RS/G)
Through the season’s first two months, the Mets got almost nothing out of veteran leader Granderson, while Wright seems to have shaken off his slow start in the last few weeks. The duo’s original struggles at the plate made the Mets’ solid start on offense look all the more surprising. As a team, they’re 8th in the NL in OBP (which usually aligns very closely with runs scored) but last in slugging. So the question is, what will change going forward? Do the individual performances start to improve, or does the unsustainable run scoring catch up with them? It’s unlikely Granderson will struggle this much all season, so it’s possible the Mets will continue to score runs at their solid early-season rate.
Masahiro Tanaka has been one of the best pitchers in baseball this season. The Cubs will face the rookie for the second time Tuesday. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
The Yankees failed to make the playoffs for only the second time in the last 19 seasons in 2013, leading the Bronx Bombers to do what they do best—spend money. The New Yorkers revamped their offense by doling out big-money, multiyear contracts to several players in the offseason and outbid the Cubs, among others, for the services of Japanese pitching sensation Masahiro Tanaka. Despite injuries to an aging team (the average age is over 33) and holes in the pitching staff and infield, the Yanks find themselves in their familiar spot atop the always difficult AL East.
4.6 Runs Allowed Per Game, 7th in AL
Tanaka is not only the talk of the high-priced Yankees rotation, but of the entire league. The 25-year-old received a 7-year/$155 million deal from the club before he had thrown a pitch in the majors, and through the first quarter of the season, he looks to be worth every penny, sporting a 6-0 record with a 2.17 ERA and 10.2 K/9 over 58 innings. He is currently carrying a pitching staff littered with injuries. Veteran ace CC Sabathia isn’t expected back for at least another month with knee issues, Michael Pineda (who has already been suspended this season for sporting a foreign substance on his neck) went on the DL with shoulder soreness, and young right-hander Ivan Nova was lost to Tommy John surgery. Hiroki Kuroda remains a cog in the rotation, though his streak of years with a sub-4.00 ERA might be in jeopardy as he enters his age 39 season. David Robertson is doing his best Mariano Rivera impression in the back end of the bullpen, having racked up eight saves in 11.2 innings and fanning 11.6 batters per nine.
4.8 Runs Scored Per Game, 8th in AL
On paper, the offense looks to be the Yankees’ primary strength. The additions of Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran were supposed to give the team a huge boost offensively. But the reality is the 27-time champs are getting the most production out of guys who are past their primes or are unproven commodities. The 26-year-old Yangervis Solarte has been a big help at third, replacing Alex Rodriguez, who is sitting out the season with a PED suspension. Solarte’s .313/.387/.500 (AVG/OBP/SLG) slash line and five homers have been a huge boost to an offense lacking pop. First baseman Mark Teixeira, who finally seems to be healthy, has provided some unexpected and much-needed power to the heart of the order, putting up nine homers and a .265/.370.549 line at age 34. Originally pegged as the team’s fourth outfielder, Ichiro Suzuki still knows how to hit. He is spelling Beltran, who is currently on the DL with elbow inflammation. Suzuki’s fine play has also allowed former Cub Alfonso Soriano to DH half the time. Brett Gardner continues to be a solid offensive threat, hitting .297 and stealing 10 bases. The offense could be even more potent if McCann was hitting to the back of his baseball card. His season average of .225 is 50 points lower than his career mark. The Cubs will also get a chance to say goodbye to Yanks captain Derek Jeter, who will play his fourth and fifth career games at the Friendly Confines this week. Though his production is down from his career norms, the 39-year-old future Hall of Famer is still the heart and soul of the team.
Carlos Gomez has been a key part of the Brewers’ success this season. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
No one expected much of the Brewers this season, but they got off to the fastest start in baseball and haven’t looked back. Coming into this series with the Cubs, Milwaukee has the second-best record in the National League (a half game behind the Giants), and they are five games up on St. Louis in what was supposed to be a very competitive NL Central. The Brewers stayed relatively quiet for most of the offseason, but made a splash late in January when they signed former Cubs pitcher Matt Garza to a four-year, $52 million deal. The addition of Garza, who adds some upside to a solid rotation, makes Milwaukee an intriguing team in an already deep NL Central. While there is certainly potential in both the staff and the offense, the Brewers have little depth. They’ll also need several players who had surprising seasons in 2013 to continue to progress this year if they hope to remain in contention all season long. Ryan Braun, returning from a 62-game PED suspension and a load of bad publicity, has continued to crush the ball.
PITCHING (3.6 Runs Allowed Per Game, 6th in NL)
Garza has remained healthy, but his ERA is nearing 5.00, and his production isn’t quite what the organization had in mind when they signed him to the big-money deal. The good news for the Brewers is that Kyle Lohse has continued to be solid as the club’s ace. He has a 4-1 record, a 2.75 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP through eight starts. While Yovani Gallardo may never live up to the promise he displayed early in his career, he gives Milwaukee a third known commodity. He’s throwing better than he has in a while, with a 3.07 ERA in nine starts. Marco Estrada looks to be coming into his own a little later in his career. The 30-year-old righty, who has posted back-to-back seasons with a sub-4.00 ERA, has taken another step forward this year, posting a 3.28 ERA in eight starts. Veteran Francisco Rodriguez has been huge in the back end of ballgames, leading the league in saves while keeping base runners to a minimum.
HITTING (3.9 Runs Scored Per Game, 5th in NL)
The offense has a chance to continue it’s high-octane output, but the Brew Crew needs several players to build off breakout 2013 seasons. Carlos Gomez has continued his 2013 power surge, ranking toward the top of the NL in home runs while still possessing game-changing speed. Braun has picked up right where he left off, hitting .316 with six homers through the first quarter of the season. The only major stumble has come from shortstop Jean Segura, who’s hitting .248 on the year and has gotten caught stealing a league-best five times already. The unheralded Jonathan Lucroy has been a key to the offense, batting .304/.377/.437 (AVG/OBP/SLG), exceptional numbers from a backstop. Though Mark Reynolds doesn’t get on base a ton, his eight homers negate a lot of his statistical weaknesses.
(Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
The White Sox had a surprisingly solid 2012 campaign, but they faltered down the stretch and then lost a miserable 99 games last season. While a rebuild was clearly in order, GM Rick Hahn appears to have taken a different route from Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and company. The Cubs have stocked up on prospects of all levels—from Low-A to nearly ready for the bigs. Hahn, on the other hand, has focused primarily on more mature talent. Trading for Avisail Garcia (since lost for the season), Adam Eaton (who will miss the Cubs series with a strained hamstring) and Matt Davidson (who started the season in Triple-A), and spending big money on Cuban star Jose Abreu demonstrated that while the White Sox are going with a youth movement, they want to be sure those kids are contributing right from the start. Injuries are currently the issue for the South Siders, with seven projected players in the Opening Day roster on the disabled list for a variety of reasons.
(5.2 RA/G, 14th in AL)
Ignore Chris Sale’s 11-14 record in 2013—he was undoubtedly one of the best pitchers in baseball. The lefty established himself as a true ace and leads an intriguing group of starters, though he is currently serving a precautionary stint on the DL for left forearm issues. Behind Sale is Jose Quintana, who came out of nowhere to have a very solid 2012 campaign. While many believed that was the best Quintana had to offer, the crafty lefty took another step forward in 2013, giving the South Siders 200 innings and a 3.51 ERA. The questions begin after that, as rookie Scott Carroll, veteran John Danks and right-hander Andre Rienzo fill out the rotation. The bullpen once again features numerous power arms, but gone is closer Addison Reed. Matt Lindstrom has had the first crack at the job with Daniel Webb and Maikel Cleto serving as setup men.
(5.1 RS/G, 3rd in AL)
Runs were at a premium on the South Side last season, but an infusion of youth has helped the White Sox reverse that trend. After a rough 2013, veteran Paul Konerko remains on the roster, but in a limited role. Abreu has been the centerpiece of the offense and one of the most talked about stories in baseball thus far. Previous questions about his bat speed have ceased as he continues to hit all kinds of pitching hard. Earlier today, he was named the Player of the Month for April. Eaton’s trip to the DL puts a slight wrench in the top-of-the-order plans, as he’d already proven pesky in the leadoff spot. He served as a lynch pin, getting on base at a high rate to set the table for sluggers Abreu and Adam Dunn—who’s probably having his finest season since coming over as a free agent in 2011. But the offense suffered its biggest blow in mid-April when they lost Garcia for the season to a torn labrum in his left shoulder. The 22-year-old sustained the injury trying to make a diving catch.
Adam Wainwright is the centerpiece of a strong Cardinals pitching staff. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
The Cardinals are perennial contenders—as evidenced by their remarkable 10 playoff appearances since the turn of the century—and this season should be no different. Time and again, St. Louis proves to be the ideal franchise, consistently churning out a lineup that features strong veteran leadership (e.g., Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright) paired with up-and-coming, high-end talent (e.g., Matt Adams, Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha). Add in that the Cards’ farm system is consistently rated one of the best in the game, and you have the makings of a formidable franchise for the foreseeable future. As with the New York Yankees, who dominated the AL East at the end of the 1990s, you can go ahead and pencil in the Cardinals as one of the teams to beat in the NL Central pretty much every season.
(3.1 Runs Allowed/Game, 2nd in the NL)
For anyone wondering if Adam Wainwright would return to form following Tommy John surgery, his 2013 campaign silenced any doubters. The Cardinals ace finished second in Cy Young voting, logged a career-high 241.2 innings and displayed significant improvement in his already stellar command, posting a career-best 3.7 percent walk rate. And he’s backed that up this season, with a 5-1 record and a 1.20 ERA through the first month. Behind Wainwright is a young nucleus with a ton of potential, including Miller and Wacha, who didn’t become a fixture in the rotation until September. There’s no step down when you get to the bullpen, as it features a pair of young, hard-throwing righties in Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez; two strong lefties in Randy Choate and Kevin Siegrist; and a ground ball artist in Seth Maness when the team is in need of a double play.
(3.6 Runs Scored/Game, 13th in NL)
The Cardinals were the best offense in the NL last season, largely because they led the league with a .332 on-base percentage and hit a remarkable .330 with runners in scoring position. Through the first month of the season, they’ve fallen back to earth a little. So far in 2014, they’ve posted a .314 OBP, and they find themselves toward the back of the NL in runs scored. Jhonny Peralta isn’t strong defensively at short, but he’s a major offensive upgrade over Pete Kozma, as his six April homers proved. While the seemingly ageless Carlos Beltran is gone, the ever-consistent Holliday and perennial MVP candidate Molina should help keep this lineup as potent as ever. The Cardinals were lacking in the home run department last year, but a full season of Adams’ power bat could balance out Beltran’s departure.
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty)
The Reds used a balanced attack to win 90 games and snag the second Wild Card spot in 2013. Even though it was their third playoff appearance in four seasons, manager Dusty Baker was let go, as his team failed to advance in any of their three postseason trips. The organization stayed within the family to find Baker’s replacement, promoting highly respected pitching coach Bryan Price to the top spot. Price could find himself with an even stronger rotation, despite losing Bronson Arroyo to the Diamondbacks, but he must hope rookie speedster Billy Hamilton can fill a giant-sized hole at the top of the lineup created by the departure of on-base machine Shin-Soo Choo. Still, led by perennial MVP candidate Joey Votto, there’s a ton of talent on this roster.
(11th in NL, 3.8 RS/G)
The Reds likely won’t be able to replace Choo and his .423 OBP in the leadoff spot, but rookie phenom Hamilton hopes to wreak havoc on the basepaths (though he has struggled with just a .220 on-base percentage thus far). His speed is so disruptive that if he finds his way to first, it’s likely he’ll be in scoring position within a pitch or two. Votto gets dinged for not driving in runs, but there’s no debating he’s one of the most productive offensive forces in the game, with a .446 OBP and the ability to consistently hit 25-plus home runs. Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier are both good complementary run producers, but Brandon Phillips is on the downside of his career and struggled with a .310 OBP and .706 OPS last season.
(5th in NL, 3.4 RA/G)
Despite losing Arroyo, the Reds’ rotation actually has a chance to improve from last season. After making only 11 starts in 2013, ace Johnny Cueto appears to be healthy, and though Homer Bailey is having a rough start to 2014, the right-hander finally started living up to the high expectations that come with being a top prospect last aseaon. He posted career bests in ERA (3.49), IP (209), WHIP (1.12), K% (23.4 percent) and K/BB (3.69). Add Mike Leake, Tony Cingrani and Mat Latos when he returns from a DL stint, and Cincinnati’s rotation is one of the most impressive on paper entering 2014. The bullpen is also excellent, even with closer Aroldis Chapman still recovering from a comebacker to the face in Spring Training. Sam LeCure, Alfredo Simon and J.J. Hoover all posted sub-3.00 ERAs in more than 60 innings of work last season. And the Reds still have veteran arms in Jonathan Broxton and Manny Parra.
(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty)
At 12:05 CST, the Cubs will kick off the season against the Pirates at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. Jeff Samardzija will get his second straight Opening Day nod—and his second straight season kick-off in Pittsburgh—against Pirates lefty and 2013 Comeback Player of the Year Francisco Liriano.
Last season, Samardzija gave up only two hits in eight shutout innings to beat then-Pittsburgh starter A.J. Burnett, 3-1. This will also mark Rick Renteria’s first official game as a major league manager.
Happy Opening Day. Here’s to six more months of Cubs baseball.
Here’s the Cubs lineup for the opener:
1. Bonifacio CF
2. Lake LF
3. Castro SS
4. Rizzo 1B
5. Olt 3B
6. Castillo C
7. Schierholtz RF
8. Barney 2B
9. Samardzija P
The Cubs are looking to get manager Rick Renteria his first win as they head to Tempe this afternoon to take on the Angels in their first road game of the Cactus League season. While the Cubs will get reacquainted with Albert Pujols and get a chance to see superstar Mike Trout, the Angels will get their first look at phenom Javy Baez. The 21-year-old, who hit .282/.341/.578 with 37 home runs and 111 RBI last season between High-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee, gets the start at short today.
Left-hander Chris Rusin is on the mound, taking on the Angels Jared Weaver. Rusin will be backed up by lefties Jonathan Sanchez and Tommy Hottovy, and righties James McDonald and Carlos Pimentel.
Pat Hughes and Ron Coomer will have the game on WGN Radio at 2 p.m. CST. It will also be webcast on Cubs.com. In case you missed it, here’s the lineup for Friday’s game.
1. Chris Coghlan DH
2. Darwin Barney 2B
3. Ryan Sweeney CF
4. Nate Schierholtz RF
5. Donnie Murphy 3B
6. Casper Wells LF
7. Javier Baez SS
8. George Kottaras C
9. Chris Valaika 1B
Chris Rusin P
The Cubs also announced lineups for Saturday’s day-night doubleheader. They start the day at home versus the Giants at 2:05 p.m. CST, and finish up against the Diamondbacks in Scottsdale at 8:05 CST. All-Star Travis Wood will take the hill against the Giants, while Edwin Jackson gets his first start of the spring in the nightcap. Rain is currently in the forecast for Saturday, so the games could be threatened. If the weather cooperates, both will be broadcast on Cubs.com. Here are Saturday’s lineups.
1. Arismendy Alcantara 2B
2. Luis Valbuena 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo 1B
4. Justin Ruggiano CF
5. Welington Castillo C
6. Chris Valaika SS
7. George Kottaras DH
8. Darnell McDonald LF
9. Aaron Cunningham RF
Travis Wood P
1. Emilio Bonifacio 2B
2. Junior Lake CF
3. Starlin Castro SS
4. Ryan Roberts 1B
5. Kris Bryant 3B
6. Jorge Soler RF
7. Mike Olt DH
8. Chris Coghlan LF
9. Eli Whiteside C
Edwin Jackson P